Give legal immigrants the dignity of a second chance

Say a friend or someone in your family makes a mistake - commits a crime, perhaps a very serious one, perhaps just shoplifting. The person is sentenced to at least a year.

Long after release from prison - amid the trappings of a normal, upstanding life - the person is locked up again, despite not having committed a new crime. After a brief detention hearing held without legal representation (unless the person can afford an attorney), the person is held indefinitely, perhaps in county jails where conditions can be poor.

You'd probably think it unfair. But it's actually happening in the US - not to citizens, but to thousands of legal immigrants under a 1996 law. As more cases come to light, the consequences of the law become more apparent.

Working mothers with children who are American citizens, husbands who have served in the US military, and others are being detained and put under deportation orders. Many have already been deported. Those from countries that will not accept these people again are locked up indefinitely - apparently for life, because no resolution of their legal dilemma seems to exist.

In 1996, Congress hurriedly passed and President Clinton signed into law major changes in the way the country treats legal immigrants. The lawmakers were concerned about illegal entries into the country. But the new laws also hit hard at legal residents who are not citizens.

These are people who have legal permission to stay - many have lived most of their lives in the US, paid taxes, and raised families. They built their lives here with the idea that if they broke the law, they could pay the price of a prison sentence and go on with their lives. Now they can't. Under INS rules prior to 1996, if legal immigrants committed certain felonies and were sentenced up to five years, they could be given a second chance and allowed to stay.

Now the list of offenses has grown, and regardless of length of sentence or time in the US, a legal immigrant can't stay.

The new rules apply retroactively. In effect, immigrants judged no threat to society one day found themselves being ordered out the next because a law changed. Despite having one Constitution and supposedly one sense of justice, the US is treating citizens one way and legal immigrants another.

There is injustice in aspects of the 1996 law. For example:

*Danny Kozuba, a Canadian who has lived in the US since he was 5, served three years in the US Army. Mr. Kozuba, who lives in Mesquite, Texas, spent three years in prison from 1990 to 1993, on a drug possession charge. Since then, he has been designing and installing custom kitchens. Today, however, he faces a deportation order for his earlier crime.

*Carmen Sarmiento-Avila, a Florida resident, came to the US from Colombia when she was 12. An accountant whose son is a US citizen, she now faces deportation for her white-collar crime of grand theft. After serving 15 months in prison on that charge, she was detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in May.

"You make a mistake, you pay society," Ms. Sarmiento-Avila says. But under the 1996 laws there is no second chance. Immigrants are deported despite having served their prison term. The law is "ripping apart families," she says.

*Phuoc La escaped from Vietnam in 1978, almost dying when the water supply on his boat ran out. He served a sentence for felony assault. But, pending deportation, he has been in INS custody for a year in the Krome detention center near Miami and various county jails in Florida. He says he was denied parole in a hearing he wasn't prepared for and in which he says documents commending his behavior were not examined. Vietnam won't accept deportees, so he's being held indefinitely; it amounts to a life sentence.

Frustrations with such indefinite sentences have sparked riots - like the one by Cuban detainees earlier this month in Louisiana - in several county jails, where detainees are sent because of overcrowding in INS facilities.

Detainees aren't supposed to be treated as prisoners but, an INS official acknowledges, they usually are. Private attorneys confirm the use of shackles on INS detainees when they are moved within the jails.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have been highly critical of county jail conditions and treatment of inmates, including INS detainees.

Detainees have complained of being shackled naked to a concrete slab and shocked with electric riot shields and batons in one Florida jail, says Cheryl Little, director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center in Miami.

Other INS detainees languishing in confinement include many asylum seekers. For example, Goug Keng Chen, a Chinese asylum seeker, was detained upon US entry. He committed no crime, but has been locked up by the INS for four years. UN conventions argue against confinement of asylum seekers.

The number of immigrants confined has tripled - to 15,700 - under the 1996 laws.

The American Bar Association and civil rights and church groups urge changing the 1996 laws. Congress has been slow to act, and the few pending bills wouldn't do enough.

The laws are too punitive, don't allow people a second chance, split families, and run counter to most people's sense of fairness. The laws should be modified to allow review of INS rulings by non-INS courts, to provide free legal representation to those who can't afford it, to narrow the criteria for deportation, and to eliminate the retroactive parts.

INS judges should be given back discretion to allow people who prove they aren't a danger to the community to stay.

*Robert Press, a former Monitor correspondent, is author of 'The New Africa: Dispatches from a Changing Continent' (University Press of Florida).

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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